400 Years a Slave

9 November 2013

Scene from the film "12 Years a Slave"

Scene from the film “12 Years a Slave”

After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw the movie 12 Years a Slave.

In trying to unpack my thoughts, the one thing I do not want to do is review the film. Others will do that far more adeptly than I. Suffice it to say, the film was STUNNING — in every sense of the word, at all possible levels.

As an African American genealogist, I am more informed than most about the history of African American people and our subjugation to slavery in the Americas. From my personal family tree, I can name 12 ancestors whose humanity was violated. (And that is just the “top note” as I know there are others whose names will never be found.)

For the past 30+ years, I have been on a mission to bring their stories to light — not just for my own edification, but for public exposure. It was thus that I created Our Black Ancestry for the purpose of “empowering our future by honoring our past.”

Every name I learn, every document I uncover, every story I reveal … all of it constitutes a mere fragment in the worldwide complicity of economic aspiration that resulted in a heinous crime against  humanity. It is a crime that has never been fully addressed, punished or resolved. White Americans relegate this past to the fond digression of films like Gone with the Wind. African Americans often refuse to look back, perhaps in an attempt to control the antipathy that surely must reside within our wounded souls.

The powerful essence of the movie was that it encapsulated a visual depiction of the words I read in books and documents.

As I witnessed the unfolding story of Solomon Northup, I was mentally transported into a cotton field where my great grandparents toiled without relief in  Lowndes County, Alabama.

I lay in the bed of my great grandmother in Noxubee County, Mississippi as she succumbed to sexual objectification by the man who fathered her 17 children — thus being elevated over a 10 year span from “farmhand” to “housekeeper.”

I experienced the anguish of an inconsolable mother whose cries for her stolen children were so overwhelmingly rife with anguish, her fellow slave retorted that she “stop wailing.” She then endured further punishment by being sold away by an owner who refused to entertain the unconscionable pain he had caused.

As Northup was hung by the neck and left dangling in desperation, I envisioned my uncle who was lynched.

I shared the pathos of generations of people — my people — kidnapped, chained, whipped, crippled, violated and traumatized in every possible way. Slave masters reduced themselves and their prey to a level of barbarity that defies imagination, unleashing a vicious cycle of violence that informs our society unto this very day.  

I cannot fathom the cognitive dissonance of these men (and their consort wives) who did what they did and justified it with the word of a God I do not know.

In the end, as Northup climbed into the wagon of his rescuers, all he could do was gaze with sadness and longing at the ones he left behind. In the final analysis, it was they who were the most tragic of victims because their subjugation was never to be relieved. 

Sixty years removed from the only relative I knew in person who was enslaved — my father’s grandmother — I am limited to a vicarious awareness of what she and my other family members endured. There is no doubt in my mind… I would NOT have survived. Yet, I am grateful they did because, if not for them, I would not BE.

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7 Responses to “400 Years a Slave”

  1. slbridgesart said

    You’ve looked at it, the face of it, and described it for us lacking nothing. It pains us to no end and will not go away.

  2. My Sister, every fiber of my being screams you would have survived, as did so many others…that was an imperative like no other for our ancestors. Your depth and broadness (as evidenced in your initiative and writing) in this life indicates strengths you likely would have had back then! Peace to you…

  3. The topics that feature Blacks “front and center” are limited to only a handful of story lines are “acceptable” on any regular basis: thug, servants, slavery, sidekick, complete and utter silliness. This was so much the exception, in terms of its sophistication, though. And you addressed it so well. I would love your perspective on my blog topics (if you so choose) morethanculturalcompetency here on wordpress. Sherryl

  4. yvettemoyo said

    Sharon, this is why I love you. For having the skill to write what’s most painful, the courage and skill to seek truth and share understanding, and the ability to put others on their path to the past to ensure the best possible futures , you are on point.

  5. […] words of my Gather at the Table writing partner and friend Sharon Leslie Morgan. She wrote “400 Years a Slave” on her Our Black Ancestry blogsite after experiencing 12 Years a Slave the day before we […]

  6. Lizzie said

    Reblogged this on Acorns and Leaves.

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